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Aug 25, 2006

The anatomy of human conflict

Anything could trigger a conflict; I am not convinced there needs to be a trigger at all. Yet what happens next is fairly universal. “A” does something, and “B” interprets is as a hostile action. It never ceases to amaze me how poor are our interpretations of others' intent. I would call this phenomenon “the hostility bias.” It may have very simple evolutionary reasons: it would benefit an animal to perceive any strange, unexplained actions by another animal as hostile. We can’t really help it; lack of information for interpretation leads us to interpret other’s behavior as hostile. The way we assign meaning to things is by comparing them to our past experiences, but our past experiences are remembered already interpreted. In other words, if you think someone was mean to you in the past (which may or may not be true), any next action of the same person is likely to be interpreted as hostile. That is how we make enemies. An enemy is a very simple category, because it takes all the guesswork and uncertainty out of figuring out the intent. An enemy will always be expected to undermine you, so any of his or her actions should be opposed based on this assumption. Of course, having enemies makes working together very unproductive, because the substance of discussion is overshadowed by the hidden implied meanings of the discussion.

In most social systems, there are elaborated rituals of reconciliation to overcome the natural tendency to suspect evil intentions. People expel bad spirits, they punish each other, forgive, make peace, sign treaties, marry their children, etc., etc. In the academia, such powerful forces of cohesion do not exist or are weak, so conflicts arise easily and rarely extinguish themselves. The only natural defense against the splintering centrifugal forces of conflict is finding a common external enemy. For that, people need to feel threatened in a very profound way. So, paradoxically, if an academic unit is in a decent shape, and is successful, the forces of social cohesion tend to be weak, because there is no plausible enemy without.

Of course, conflicts are terribly distracting. The energy expended on scheming, strategizing, resisting, sabotaging, and mending fences is enormous. How do we establish a culture that is if not immune to conflicts, at least not a Petri dish for them? One rule maybe one that I always try to impose on my students: always assume that your opponent is not evil or stupid. In either case, dialogue and cooperation are impossible. If we do not allow for a possibility that honest, decent people may disagree with us, and neither of us is wrong, then, well, we may as well close down the shop. The room, the assumption of honest disagreement is absolutely essential. Bill Clinton has articulated this idea many times in his speeches, to no avail, apparently, for political debate in this country remains dialogue-free. Another rule: accept uncertainty, do not over-interpret people’s actions. In very simple cases, we can read the general intention of another person from non-verbal cues: is she smiling, is his tone of voice friendly? Now, when we communicate over e-mail, OR when we communicate with complex actions rather than words, these back-up channels of communication fail. We simply do not know other people’s intentions. We like to guess and pretend we understand, but in fact, we often do not have a clue. This is when the hostility bias kicks in. We are animals in search of narrative; we NEED a story to explain the world, including the behavior of others. It takes a conscious effort to tell yourself: “I simply don’t know what they mean.”

OK, to review, two rules of conflict-free work place:
  1. No one is evil or stupid (stupid includes incompetent)
  2. You can't read other people's minds

Of course, there are things I should do as the Director to help this process. One is to allow for greater information flow and transparency for all decisions. Remember, it is lack of information that invites the hostility bias. And two, I should never fully trust any story any of you is telling me about someone else in a context of conflict. So, if you tell me someone was evil or incompetent, I might nod, but just know, I am not really buying it; there probably was a simpler explanation of that person’s actions. My job is not to find out who was right and who was wrong about this or that, much less to take sides; it is to make sure we can work together despite our personal likes or dislikes, or past conflicts or disagreements.

Aug 17, 2006

How to stop turf wars

Having some turf of one’s own is natural. Chimps, for example patrol their territories at night, and can severely hurt or kill intruders from adjacent bands. All primates are territorial animals, and academics are just primates with a graduate degree. Humans groups have a deep-seated instinctual drive to establish their territory, be it hunting ground or academic program. We all need to know the degree and the limits of our freedom in order to be able to exercise our will. In the academia, having some freedom is especially important, because our identities are closely linked to having knowledge, expertise, and therefore to the ability to determine the right course of actions. We do not react well to limitations simply because they question our competence, and thus jeopardize our very being as scholars. Academics like freedom because it their existential condition, not because of personal preference. We are nothing if we cannot have some claim to independence. Independence means having a piece of turf of one’s own.

In reality, universities operate under all sorts of constrains, including, of course, budgetary, but also political and administrative. Most of these constrains are completely out of our control. Every time State bureaucrats come up with a new requirement or initiative, we have no choice but to comply, whatever we think the merits of these initiatives are. Such daily capitulations inflict deep psychic wounds, because they both demean our identity but forbid admitting even to ourselves that such thing has taken place. Of course, the frustration seeks a way out. We cannot do anything about the State or NCATE, but we can do something about our immediate neighbors from our departments or departments next door. When things get difficult, suddenly “they” seem to become pushy, suspicious, and perhaps wanting to take over our turf. “They” take on almost mythical qualities: they don’t respect what we do, they have questionable ethical beliefs, they plot against us, and they do not understand what we do, but want to meddle anyway. They always have hidden agendas, and they have cause harm to us in the past. Their calls to cooperate are but attempts to trick us into letting our turf go. They do not work as hard as we do, and they make way too much money. They have more power, and they do not respect us. But most importantly, they want a piece of our turf.

Most of these opinions of course do not have any rational basis. It is very unlikely that the next group of humans with very similar life experiences, educational level, and general outlook on life would somehow contain more unethical, incompetent, or dishonest people. It is possible, but statistically very unlikely. Because of that simple fact, I maintain that the real cause of most academic turf wars is the misplaced anxiety over circumstances beyond our common control.

However, let me return to the initial assertion: turf is good; even if the turf wars are rarely productive. An honest conversation about the boundaries may reveal not only that there is enough turf for everyone, but that there are huge surpluses of nobody’s turf out there. A clear statement of rights of a particular group goes a long way in understanding that others may not really want to violate these rights. In other words, turf must have more or less clearly marked boundaries. Good fences make good neighbors. Only when groups are secure about their turf they may come to a conclusion that collaboration with neighbors can be beneficial. Moreover, they may realize that boundaries sometime maybe shifted without the threat of total annihilation. Ultimately, the forces beyond our control may be somewhat controlled if we figure out how to stop turf wars, because, as everyone knows, it is still the old “divide and rule” world.

Aug 11, 2006

Your director's list of task, abridged

Here is what is on my project list. I realize this is not going to be interesting to everyone, but if you’re wondering how your director fills his work days, here it is. The list is not prioritized.

  1. Fall schedule. It has a number of unresolved issues.
  2. Helix to Banner conversion. This is a biggie. We maintain Helix database that needs to be phased out during this academic year, because it is a Mac-only database, and new Macs will not support it. But Banner is also new, and IT is very busy trying to make it work. We need a comprehensive review of all program and licensure procedures. I am chipping away at this task, while learning the programs.
  3. The printing/copying savings. To save some money for travel fund, we need to cut down on these costs. This cannot be done overnight, but rather gradually, so our faculty, students, cooperating teachers and others get used to electronic form of communication.
  4. The book of policies. I am trying to spell out the rules that will govern our school’s operations: scheduling, workload assignments, evaluations, tenure and promotion, expectations, etc.
  5. Web site redesign: the basics are there, but a lot of work remains: see
  6. Program development. We have several projects in works in various degree of completion.
  7. Doctoral degree – I suggested a number of revisions of the existing and well-developed proposal (Thanks, Linda, Michael, and Fred).
  8. Early Childhood PTEP. We will try to develop a joint program with Aimes or another community college.
  9. Revision of MAT. It is just an idea (Fred again), to redefine the existing MAT so that along with the Elementary specialization, there would also be Ed Studies of C&I specialization for secondary teachers.
  10. Another just an idea – a certificate in Middle School for teachers, a state-wide on-line program (Barb).
  11. iWebfolio: We are working with Elementary, and will start working with Secondary faculty on implementing the new on-line portfolio system, which should help us collect and analyze data for accreditation purposes, and just for fun. Data party? Data Picnic?
  12. My own syllabus for EDF 366.
  13. Learning URSA.
  14. Program procedure review. This sort of relates to number 3, but is wider in scope. The idea is to simplify and streamline all procedures, using Banner, e-mail, and website so that the office staff and program coordinators are liberated from much of routine and boring work.

Aug 5, 2006

On the nature of human knowledge

I have been on the job for a month. Despite an effort to learn everything there is to know about the School and its programs, many details are still escaping me. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation I suddenly realize that what I thought we are talking about is not the same you thought we are talking about. Some assumptions just do not hold, because my past experiences are not identical to yours. What you call A or B at UNC may not necessarily mean the same things at BGSU. Sometimes this is funny, sometimes frustrating, often just a bit annoying, because it wastes time and makes me look foolish.

How much does one need to know to make good decisions? It is clear that perfect knowledge of anything is but a fantasy. Therefore, one has to be able to differentiate knowledge that is more useful to have and knowledge that can be safely ignored. There is another distinction: some things I need to know, while other things should be known by other people. No one can know everything; our brains are just not big enough for that.

I have a list of projects of various scope and level. It is close to dozen, although some are related. How do I know that Helix-to-Banner database conversion is more or less important than the new Doctoral degree or Early Childhood PTEP program? Is iWebfolio project more or less important than the retreat we are planning for late August? Of course, there are University’s documents such as Charting the Future, etc. We also have started the strategic planning process this week. Yet I don’t believe most people operate strictly from the plans they develop or set of priorities they set. There is also another way of prioritizing that is for internal consumption. When I look at my to-do list, what mechanism do I use to select which thing should be dealt with first, and which can wait? It is more of an instinct than a rational thought. But then, how do I know it is right?

Events have their own way of prioritizing; some issues become more pressing, and some quietly go away. I cannot play defense all the time though; there should be a couple of projects that are not in response to immediate needs, and do not feel urgent right now, but will make a difference in the long run. I guess this is one reason I write this blog – to remind myself that there is more to this job than keeping things running or make sure they are somewhat improve.